Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

January 16, 2022

President Theodore Roosevelt established Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1907 to protect ancient Native American-created structures in the Gila Wilderness of southwest New Mexico. It’s a fantastic destination for anyone interested in the history and culture of the southwest United States (and getting there is rewarding as well).

Nancy and I visited Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument on a Sunday in mid-January. Because dogs aren’t allowed on the trail to access the dwellings, we decided to board Gunther that weekend. This national monument is very isolated: despite being only about 45 road miles from Silver City, New Mexico, the drive takes about an hour and 45 minutes because of a large number of extremely tight turns.

The road (part of The Trail of the Mountain Spirits National Scenic Byway on New Mexico State Highway 15) is paved and well-maintained, although we saw plenty of ice and snow along the roadside.
The drive isn’t only through dense forests: there are also plenty of extraordinary vistas to enjoy. This is looking to the northeast from NM Highway 15. It’s at least another half hour to the monument from here.
Due at least partially to the Covid-19 pandemic, the monument’s visitor center was closed (which we knew prior to leaving Silver City that morning). We proceeded to the trailhead that takes hikers to the dwellings themselves, but first stopped at a pullout to read about a 1966 excavation that uncovered evidence of nearly 2,000 years of consistent human habitation at this particular site. Evidence of a pithouse structure dating from the year 200 was found, along with other buildings from between 650 and 1000, as well as Pueblo rooms from the period between 1000-1300, and finally a relatively modern three-room adobe homestead dating to the year 1883. The highway on the right side of the photo, which leads to the cliff dwelling’s trailhead, was built in 1966 over some of the excavated ruins; the stone outlines in front of our pickup represent the location of the Pueblo structure dating from between 1000 and 1300. This site is just a few steps from the Gila River (to the left of this photo), so it had easy access to consistent water for all of those inhabitants over the centuries.
The monument has a bookstore adjacent to the trail leading to the dwellings, and this American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) was hanging out on the bookstore’s roof. There was a time that I didn’t think too much of crows (the big park that we once lived next to in central Denver had a very large and vocal group of them), but I’ve since begun to appreciate them more. They’re very smart and adaptable birds. While Anglos tend to have negative connotations of crows, many Native American cultures view them with quite a lot of respect. I took this guy’s appearance before our hike as a positive sign, although it’s very possible he was just eyeing my pre-hike peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
This is the trailhead view of the cliff where the dwellings are located, although the dwellings themselves are on the other side of the cliff and not visible from this point. The Mogollon Mountains, which include the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, are located in the caldera of a supervolcano that erupted about 28 million years ago. The eruption, one of several that occurred at about the same time in the same area, had an explosive power 1,000 times that of Mount St. Helen’s eruption in 1980. The volcanic material fell to the ground and, because it was incredibly hot, welded together into a rock called tuff. Later volcanic eruptions covered the tuff with another type of volcanic rock called andesite. All of the ground level of this area was once near the top of the cliffs. Following the eruptions, millions of years of erosion by water, wind and other forces created the sedimentary stone that’s in this and other cliffs. Harder types of rocks at the top of the cliff keep the ground there from eroding as quickly as the softer rocks below. A creek flowing through the area gradually carved out a canyon, and also dislodged huge boulders to expand holes in the cliff that would become caves. About 700 years ago, the Mogollons built their dwellings in those caves.
This is the West Fork of the Gila River, which starts a few miles just north of the dwellings and which one crosses over a bridge to begin the hike. The West Fork joins the Middle Fork of the Gila River a couple of miles east of this bridge near the monument’s visitor center, and they converge with the East Fork a few miles further downvalley. We’d see more of the Gila River in the weeks to come.
The short hike, a one-mile loop that passes the dwellings, is one of the more pleasant ones Nancy and I have been on in a long time. It’s shaded by trees and by the walls of the steep canyon through which Cliff Dweller Creek, a year-round source of water that converges with the Gila River, flows. The canyon and surrounding area are home to a number of species of animals like deer, turkey, and javelina – all of which provided the Mogollon in their day with food as well as materials with which to build tools. Between the animals, the trees and plants, and the water of Cliff Dweller Creek (the Mogollons likely called it something else), the cliff dwellers had everything they needed to make a home.
I regret not keeping count of how many bridges cross Cliff Dweller Creek on the way to the dwellings, but it was at least a dozen. Having helped build parts of quite a few trails, Nancy and I appreciated the work that went into developing and maintaining this one. Even though we were in southwestern New Mexico, we were glad we both had jackets for this hike – it was chilly in the shade.
To wit: I thought the material on the canyon wall on the left was evidence of a popular place for birds or maybe rodents; as we walked closer I realized that it was frozen water coming from a spring that feeds the creek.
After a very pleasant walk in the canyon, the trail rises gradually to provide this view (with a telephoto camera lens) of the dwellings. The person at the structure on the left provides a sense of scale; we were to find that she’s an National Park Service volunteer named Lena. The black streaks arising from the caves are evidence of human habitation: carbon from cooking and heating fires from 700 years ago and even further back. Soot on the cave ceilings indicates that humans lived in these caves for thousands of years before the Mogollon arrived and made improvements.

Archeologists believe, based on studying designs on pottery found within the ruins, the Mogollon people who built and lived in these dwellings originally came from the Tularosa River region, which is about 60 miles north of the monument. From dendrochronology that dates timbers used in the construction of the dwellings, researchers believe the structures were built between the years 1276 and 1287.

About 40 structures, ranging from large communal rooms to small storage areas, were built in five natural caves within the cliff. The dwellings provided homes for 12-15 families.
Lena, the NPS volunteer, said that about 90 percent of the present-day dwellings is original; the rest has been work done by NPS to help protect and fortify the structures. It’s notable that walking around the structures within Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is permitted and encouraged; that’s not the case with all NPS cliff dwelling sites because of (wholly understandable) concern about destruction from human traffic. Nancy and I have really enjoyed visiting some of the more remote NPS locations in New Mexico and Arizona, in part because of the lack of crowds.
This wood beam, or viga, is original to the cliff dwellings, and along with a series of other vigas and additional materials supported another floor above this room. The tree that the wood log came from was felled 500 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I didn’t place anything next to it for a sense of scale (it’s 750 years old), but I’d say about 18 inches of the viga is protruding from the wall.
Here is an intrepid researcher, from her tenuous perch high atop a wooden ladder, peering into the depths of one of the structures. What clues will she find as to what really happened?
This is a view looking through the natural cave opening to the canyon wall on the other side of Cliff Dweller Creek below. The holes in the walls of the structure are where vigas were placed to provide support to another floor of the still-existing room.

Despite putting a lot of effort into the construction, the Mogollon lived in these dwellings for only a short time before moving southward in about the year 1300. While research continues to determine reasons for their departure, most evidence points to a widespread and prolonged drought that forced many Native Americans into larger communities in present-day northern Mexico.

Present-day Native Americans say that the Mogollon never left; their descendants became the Zuni and Acoma Pueblo tribes of present-day New Mexico and the Hopi tribe in present-day Arizona.

The Mogollon weren’t the last Native Americans to live in this area. Evidence shows that the Apache moved to the upper Gila River in the sixteenth century. The storied Apache leader Geronimo was born very near the cliff dwellings, at the headwaters of the Gila River, in the early 1820s.

Because of the nearly two-hour drive from Silver City, the largest municipality close to the dwellings, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is not a destination one goes to by accident. However, it’s well worth the effort to get there, and we’re both looking forward to a return trip in the future.

Monesterio de Nuestra Señora Santa Maria de Guadalupe

January 8, 2022

We took a day trip to visit Silver City, New Mexico, in December while we were still staying in Deming, which is about an hour south of Silver City. We stopped at the town’s visitor center, as visitors do, and the very helpful volunteer there happened to mention that there’s a monastery north of Silver City. She added that visitors could enter the chapel for the Divine Service, which was conducted in Gregorian chants. That really piqued our interest, as it would anyone who was around in the 1990s and had the “Chant” CD (and everyone had that CD in the 1990s). We didn’t have time to visit the monastery that day, but we resolved to do so when we were staying in Silver City in January.

And so we did.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery, founded in 1991, is about 10 miles north of Silver City on some very winding National Forest dirt roads. The monastery is home to a number of Benedictine monks who spend their days (which start at 3 AM) in worship and at work, including farming, construction, woodworking, and other pursuits. While in the Goddard that morning, we looked at the schedule for the monastery’s Divine Office online and endeavored to be at the 12 noon service.

While we were still a few miles from the monastery, parts of its buildings kept popping out through the forest trees.

The drive to the monastery, especially when we saw parts of the buildings emerge from the forest, reminded both Nancy and me of approaching Neuschwanstein Castle when we were in Bavaria in 2008. Although it’s only 10 miles from Silver City, the trip takes about 30 minutes because of the road conditions and tight turns.

This is the entrance to the monastery. Although the monastery is deep within the woods surrounded by the Gila National Forest, the cactus and ocatillo (the spindly succulent on the right, which is more closely related to blueberries than to cacti) reminded us that we were not far from the Chihuahan Desert.

Although Silver City is in southwestern New Mexico, the monastery is at an elevation of about 6,700 feet and, because of the deep shade afforded by the surrounding pine trees, there was still some snow on the ground from a New Year’s Eve snowfall. We arrived just a few minutes before noon and found our way to the chapel, as the bells from the tower overhead were calling the monks to the service.

The arched entrance and bell tower of the monastery’s chapel. St. Benedict founded his first monastery, apparently without the intent of founding an entire order, in about 529 in Italy.

There were a few monks already in the chapel when we entered, and more gradually entered until there were perhaps 12 or 14 when the service began. I didn’t want to take photos, and I won’t write too much about the service itself other than to say that it was indeed conducted in Gregorian chants and in Latin (I recognized the word “Amen” and that was about it), and it was an extraordinarily calming and restorative experience that Nancy and I enjoyed immensely.

This is the view looking northwest at the Gila National Forest from the chapel’s entrance. This monastery is one of about 100 Benedictine houses in the United States.

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